Poet Clare Crossman was one of our first contributing authors at Finding Blake, and we welcome Clare back with her reflections on A Poison Tree, a key poem in William Blake’s work, published in Songs of Experience in 1794.
I re-read A Poison Tree again recently because I run the south Cambridgeshire Poetry society, Stanza, and was looking for poems about Truth, which is the theme of this year’s national poetry day.
Adrian Mitchell, a great lover of Blake, was a necessary poet in the mix. The lyrics of his song The Truth were just what I needed and then there was Emily Dickinson, Don Patterson, WH Auden, and all the other poets on the National Poetry Day site.
I was reminded of A Poison Tree by one of the members during our discussion. The more we looked at poems the more it seemed that there was a very thin line between truth and lies, as we felt the truth can sometimes be unbearable. A Poison Tree was discussed because it was the one poem we all knew in which the effects of not saying how you feel or addressing anger can cause self-destructive anger and, as in the poem, death — or murder as some have suggested.
Directness and honesty is a tone that can be relied on in Blake. It is interesting to note that the original title of the poem was Christian Forbearance, an irony of course from Blake: a criticism of the buttoned-up and the easy Good. He disliked hypocrisy.
The poison of soft, deceitful wiles
Blake stares into the face of what anger does to us by setting his thoughts in a simple balance.
I was angry with my friend;I told my wrath, my wrath did end.I was angry with my foe:I told it not my wrath did grow.
There is difficulty in speaking to the enemy and so, full of resentment, he nurtures the Poison Tree inside him (I imagine capillaries through which a cancer is spreading):
And I watered it in fears,Night and morning with my tears:And I sunned it with smilesAnd with soft deceitful wiles.
Blake notes that how he responds to the enemy is to pretend to be pleasant: ‘soft deceitful wiles’. He smiles through his anger. As Shakespeare wrote, “A man may smile and smile and be a villain”.
In the third verse there is an elegant reversal, the apple in the Garden of Eden becomes a glittering object as if it has been touched by King Midas, not a beautiful piece of fruit:
And it grew both day and nightTill it bore an apple bright.And my foe beheld it shineAnd he knew that it was mine.
This apple does not belong in the Garden of Love, it has been created by things left unspoken and has become a symbol of deception and anger (‘My precious, my precious’). This apple does not cause the fall of man by being picked and eaten; it causes death destruction and an eerie acknowledgement of the way evil can fascinate and entangle.
Then there is the last verse.
And into my garden stole,When the night had veiled the pole:In the morning glad I see;My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
I don’t agree with literal interpretations of the last verse. I think it is too deliberately ambiguous, and my feeling is that it means more that the evil has somehow spread and been recognised by both the foe and the speaker in the poem. In the dark ‘night had veiled the pole’ both people in the poem have become part of the destructive anger.
A destructive anger
I wonder what started this poem off? We have all had relationships that end in anger and silence, with both people involved feeling damaged. The singer-songwriter Beth Orton has written a wonderful melancholic setting for this poem which can be found on one of her finest albums, Sugaring Season.
But the poem I think is about real hatred and real dislike, where those involve dissemble and pretend to be opposite to who they are while harbouring a deep, destructive anger… The scenes in the last series of Peaky Blinders, showing Oswald Mosley at full throttle come to mind. In that instance, hatred of the other is masquerading as good sense and decency — which is in his case fascism.
Blake seems to be saying that however difficult we find it we must stand up to our real foes, and express our angers because if we don’t the consequences are terrible. Courage and forgiveness are also required, which can be found for a friend — but someone you really don’t like? That’s another matter. It is easier with a friend but maybe not impossible with a foe.
Good advice from 225 years ago. Oh, William Blake you were wise. You looked directly at hatred and what it does.
As Adrian Mitchell(a great admirer of Blake) wrote 150 years later:
The truth is the truth it’s a strange kind of animal, so I stay awake listening for the truth.
Adrian Mitchell’s The Truth is published in Come on Everybody – Poems 1953-2008, published by Bloodaxe Books. And you can read The Guardian’s obituary for Mitchell, “in whom the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry…” who wrote Tyger for the National Theatre in 1971, “a time-travelling musical about a visionary 18th-century poet in today’s fallen times, with music by long-term collaborator Mike Westbrook.”
You can hear Beth Orton’s song, Poison Tree, on YouTube – and of course Finding Blake guest contributors Astralingua and Mick and Kate Stannard have also shared their own adaptations of Blake’s poem with us.
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a special public event and an exclusive film for our project, courtesy of award-winning poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha’s recent poem Joy brings us the voice of Catherine Blake, wife to William Blake and ‘vital presence and assistant throughout his life’.
And he is gone, fled singing to some place I cannot reach. His angels came and he sang to them and they told him they needed him more than I did… Merciless, merciless angels… Merciless angels who know nothing of human despair. And he went with them. He nodded and spoke mild words and was soon gone… And he left a shadow of grime on his collar and a warm bed. And the angels had tall wings, like steeples, or like sails and spread white like the King’s ship in dock, and they took him, only I couldn’t see them, but I know how they looked, for hadn’t he spent all his life in their company and mine? And didn’t they sometimes appear in white like good children, and sometimes like ladies but barefoot, with rosy pink staining their necks and hands and ringlets in their hair? Their sighs were angel swords and their smiles were beams of light. He smiled at me, as if to say can’t you see how bonny they are today, on this, my death day, and there’s the whole pity of it, for I couldn’t see, and I never could.
— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale
And so spake Catherine Blake, reflecting back upon the life and death of her life-long husband William in 1827; or so writes Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator, who in this wondrous monologue gives voice to one of the most silent muses the world has known — who inspired steadily her vacillating husband-genius, is known to have helped him print and paint his masterpieces, and to whom he dedicated much of his writings.
The monologue and its volume of other poems, Joy, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2016, and was described by the judges as “an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing”. Sasha has written three other collections of poetry, is known for her promotion and translation of Russian literature, and is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival. She is currently poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.
We at Finding Blake are delighted to announce that we will be exclusively filming Sasha reading her monologue, to be premiered here on our website and in the final Finding Blake film to be released later this year. On the same day — 11th April, at 7pm — Sasha will be giving a public reading of some of Joy and other work. The venue is a wonderful Victorian engineer’s house, undergoing restoration in the grounds of the Cambridge Museum of Technology by the River Cam. The house — now named ‘Othersyde’, with its lovely gardens and outdoor bar with views across the river onto a nature reserve in the heart of the city — is a new arts and escape rooms venue that I’ve been involved with for some time. This event is the finale of a winter series of literary & musical salons.
The event is on Thursday April 11th at 7pm. All welcome, though early booking essential as it’s a cosy intimate venue — with only 25 seats! Booking info is here, and then please email me for a Paypal link to secure your ticket.
For further information on Catherine Blake, see Wikipedia, and there is an essay on her by Angus Whitehead at the Blake Archive.
For further information about Sasha Dugdale, see her Wikipedia page. You can enjoy another excerpt from Joy at the Forward Arts Foundation, (where there is also an interview with her), and here is a review from the Poetry School. The collection Joy (2017) is published by Carcanet Press, and was Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award; the poem Joy was Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.
To find out more about Othersyde, visit their Facebook page.
In the first post in her series marking publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, writer and translator Adriana Díaz-Enciso shared her unexpected introduction to William Blake on a family shopping trip from Mexico to Texas. Adriana now continues the story, recalling her adventures breaking into Blake’s world — and Blake’s London: attempting to understand the writings, images and vision of a man she felt to be a free spirit with an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art. “He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him.”
At some point, I thought that maybe if I translated him, I would manage to break into his world. I therefore translated his early series of poems to the Seasons. The translations were published in a poetry leaflet, to the editorial board of which I had been generously invited by older and much wiser poets than me. Its name was Magia Menor, after Borges’ verse, “To write a poem is to work a minor magic.” It was beautifully printed, a work of love, and I wish that my copies had not been lost when, many years later, I left Mexico. I would like to read those translations of mine now, even if I fear they weren’t that good. The fact was, in any case, that I still hadn’t managed to fully grasp Blake.
When I had moved to Mexico City, several years after those first translations, I once thought that the only way through was to translate the whole of Blake’s poems. I never got to start. It was such a daunting venture… After all, one of Mexico’s most deservedly beloved poets, Xavier Villaurrutia, had made a humbler attempt with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and who was I to try the harder stuff?
Still, I kept on pulling my Penguin edition from the shelf and reading, until it was so battered I had to replace it with another copy, this time with Elohim Creating Adam on the cover. Wondering what it was that this poetry kept on withholding from me, I was nevertheless convinced that it was of infinite value.
Beginnings of a Blakean novel
For a while I let the matter rest… a bit. But I couldn’t forget altogether that Blake’s work was waiting for me. When in 1995-6 I was writing lyrics for Babel, the third album by Mexican rock band Santa Sabina, I thought the album required Blake to make a brief appearance, and this materialised in a kind of ‘sound collage’ of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Baudelaire’s Les Litanies de Satan and a text of my own. And I read on. Slowly, I was getting closer.
Then, around 1997, I started making notes for what would then be my third novel.
Its subject would be a question: what is the meaning of human pain? I was then reading lots of what we may call hermetic writings: Paracelsus, works on alchemy, Giordano Bruno and Frances Yates’ work on him and the Hermetic tradition. This reading material obeyed a longing. Like so many others before me, I was looking for a transcendent meaning of human life. I also wanted to know whether the seemingly inexhaustible pain endured by humanity could be lived and understood in such a way that we could rise above it and find healing in wisdom and compassion so great that they would escape description.
There was a strong Christian element in my wondering, via Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila and other Christian mystics, though I was also eagerly reading Sufi sages such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi, Al-Ghazālī, and Henri Corbin’s works on both Avicenna and the ancient Iranian mystic tradition, with its archetypal Celestial Earth and the imaginal world. I couldn’t fail to see the evident coincidences between the concept of imagination elucidated by Corbin and that of William Blake.
The Christian preoccupation can partly be explained by the fact that I was raised a Catholic, attending a nuns’ school from age seven to 18. I had always been drawn to the figure of Christ, and I guess that I sincerely tried to be a fervent Christian, but soon the Church itself stood in my way. Its motions seemed empty to me, devoid of the mystery of serious ritual. Also, as my social awareness developed, I found the obvious link between mainstream Catholicism and power in Mexico; how the Church, save few exceptions, had become allied to the most conservative and un-Christian mores. I quietly stepped out of the Church, but I wanted to be fervent. I kept on being fascinated by Christ, even if the literal interpretation of his being the son of a divine Father was always hard for me. What took a hold on me was that most beautiful symbol of a god who becomes human to share man’s pain (rather than atoning for his sins). The more I read Blake, the more I agreed with his unique vision of Christ.
Soon, the idea started to take root in me that this novel should have the work of William Blake as its foundations.
Then, on 22 December 1997, a horrid massacre took place in the village of Acteal, Chiapas (a state in South East Mexico), when 45 indigenous people — including children and pregnant women — who belonged to the pacifist group Las Abejas were murdered by a paramilitary group while they were praying. The horror of this attack shook the country, and I couldn’t stop wondering whether such extreme suffering, and the impunity which followed the crime, could be just an occurrence in an indifferent universe; whether there was no transcendence, no redemption, no meaning.
And it was then that, fifteen years after finding Blake in a shopping mall in Texas, the meaning of his prophetic poems truly opened its gates for me. Acteal would become a pivotal point in my novel, and by then it was clear that the book would draw on precisely those poems which had eluded me for so long as its main source of inspiration. Their characters would be the novel’s characters. That was the beginning of twenty further years pondering on Blake.
I took Blake with me, briefly, back to the USA: in the Spring of 1998 I was granted a writing residency at what was then called Ledig House International Writers’ Colony, to write the Blakean novel. I carried with me my Blake, my hermetic books, my grief over the multiplied bloodshed in my country, and my pondering. It was in the idyllic landscape of upstate New York where the first draft of the novel was finished. I don’t remember how many weeks I spent there. Six, perhaps? I had never before had such a chance to concentrate on my writing with no distractions, surrounded by nature, sharing the findings and the pitfalls of the process with other writers from many different countries. I remember those weeks as one of the moments in my life that Satan cannot find.
A week in New York City followed, the novel still close against me while I sensed that my brief sojourn in heaven was quickly shifting into something less luminous.
Blake’s London calling
I returned to Mexico City, which seemed burdened with the weight of violence, and enveloped in my own sadness as I confronted the collapse of my marriage. A nearly fatal pneumonia put a stop to work of any kind for a few months, and the end of 1998 passed by in a kind of blur marked by loss, grief, and the minutiae of convalescence. By January 1999 the doctor declared me out of danger, and that’s when I decided to leave Mexico, as suddenly as the other changes in my life had taken place. The answer to where I would go was obvious: London, of course, that “Human awful wonder of God.”
It was London because of all the literature by Londoners or set in London that I had read since I was little; it was London because of Virginia Woolf, thanks to whom I had been driven to take my writing seriously; it was London because of my beloved Charles Dickens, and it was London because of those visionary authors who had transformed it into a city beyond the limits of mundane existence, such as Arthur Machen and, of course, William Blake. I came here ready to start revising the manuscript of my novel, sure that it would be greatly improved by being in the streets that Blake had walked.
My love affair with London was passionate from day one. It was what I had dreamt it to be, what I feared it might not be, and more. My favourite books were alive here, and so was the spirit of the authors who had immortalised the city — some, we could even say, hallowed it. My own literary London included, of course, Blake’s London: Soho, St James’s Church in Piccadilly where he was baptised, his Lambeth and those of his works that they had on show back then at the Tate. Although this was mundane London, thriving on power and greed as it has always done, it was also, simultaneously, visionary London, where the material fabric of reality could be seen through for an equally powerful spiritual force to be revealed. The hardship and loneliness I experienced during those first years in the great city were no reason to leave: I had found here what I often called ‘the mirror of my soul’, and the most fertile ground for the development of my voice as a writer.
This meant that, as I started revising my Blakean novel, I found it wanting. So wanting, in fact, that I destroyed its manuscript (both printed and electronic). But I kept all my notes. The structure remained, and so did its aim. It was just that I wasn’t telling it right. The years-long process to rewrite it started. It was a painful one: the struggle for survival meant that I didn’t have enough time or mental space for concentrating on such a complex book. Though I did write other books in those years (poetry, short stories and another, shorter novel), I felt grief and frustration because I couldn’t go forward with the Blakean story.
Notes for the novel’s chapters
Still, I worked intermittently on it and kept as close as I could to Blake. I attended, for instance, the major Blake exhibition at the Tate, which ran from the end of 2000 to February 2001. That exhibition made me redefine the novel, as my understanding of Blake grew much deeper. My memory of that visit is of going round the exhibition for hours in a kind of trance, shaken by the contrasts between the exquisite beauty of Blake’s pictorial work and its violence, moved by the pathos of his endless struggle and the indifference he faced, and stirred by the way he transformed the cruelty and crassness of the mundane into the beauty and might of a greater reality. His was the way to live a life, the only way for a true artist. I was also struck with more poignancy by the utterly unique nature of his pictorial art and his poetry, inextricably joined together.
I bought at the Tate Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake, which became a soul companion through my lonely explorations of Blake’s London. It brought home the dimensions of Blake’s struggle in a world that failed to see, to feel and understand; a struggle which was therefore of art and of the spirit, for he knew they couldn’t be separated, and a struggle for transcendence, for the ultimate liberation of man through his imagination, which was ultimately divinity in him. Which other artist had spelled out our ultimate nature so clearly? Ackroyd’s biography guided me through further readings of the prophetic poems, so that my second Penguin copy was now starting to look as battered as the first one.
Some years later, seeing the actual copies of some of Blake’s illuminated poems in the quiet of the Prints and Drawings Department in the British Museum left me in tears: no reproduction will ever be able to show the exquisiteness, the nuances, the delicacy and otherworldly beauty of those pages. You can sense in them, fully alive, the love, the care and the faith with which they were created.
Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.
In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana moves deeper into Blake’s London, and her novel takes shape as its characters seek their answers on the borders of the mundane and the visionary, visible and invisible.